Pursued By A Bear: “Should I accept I won’t break through as a playwright?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“I am wondering at what point do I accept my limitations as a playwright? I have had a number of well received short plays and rehearsed readings in the last few years with some lovely compliments about my writing but when I send off full length plays to competitions and to theatres they don’t get very far. Sometimes some feedback that I write well, sometimes nothing.

I have done a play writing course which was fantastically helpful but getting to the next rung of the ladder seems impossible.

Any advice?”

A while back I answered a question along similar lines from someone thinking about throwing in the towel after ten years of writing. You may find some of my ramblings in that column useful.

I’ll try to approach today’s question from a different angle.

Constant rejection is enough to knock anybody’s confidence. As writers it seems like almost a rite of passage to be rejected so many million times before finally being acknowledged as worthy of passage to the next level. That hallowed place where you might actually be paid for your work. Maybe.

That little bit of positive encouragement you occasionally receive eventually begins to feel like a dagger stabbing you mercilessly in the spleen over and over again. If your writing is apparently so good there must be some other reason why no one will give you a shot. It’s only natural to start wondering if you need a new brand of deodorant.

Or is it fate? Are you just not meant to be a writer? Is it time to face facts and pursue your obvious destiny as a quality assurance tester at the paperclip factory?

We all fall into this kind of fatalistic thinking at some point. It’s depressing to be chasing a dream for years without seemingly getting any closer. And these ever-so-helpful-and-friendly theatre folks keep dangling it in front of your face like “I really love this play.”

Yet they don’t want to put it on. And you start wondering if that will ever change because you get the same response (if any) every damn time.

To me, the biggest problem here is that little bit of praise. I do believe it comes from a genuine place of encouragement and love; people within the industry do want to help aspiring writers, they do want us to continue writing and they do want us to be successful (eventually). Otherwise they’d have no plays to put on. But often simple praise does more harm than good.

Because it makes you think you’re ready.

Over the years I’ve developed an extremely high level of cynicism when it comes to praise. I don’t trust it. Why? Because praise is no use to me without some kind of accompanying justification.

You like my work? Tell me why.

You like it but you don’t want to put it on? Tell me why not.

Simply saying “This is great” does nobody any favours. It might be aimed at encouraging the writer to continue writing and not give up, but it’s really empty praise because there’s no “but…”

We need that justification. Otherwise we don’t know which way to go and we keep doing the same things and getting the same rejections.

The trouble is when you first start writing you probably have some of what they call ‘raw talent’, maybe you can write fantastic dialogue or create unique and memorable characters. You have to realise a lot of writers have this kind of talent.

I get told all the time that people love my dialogue. And I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging here, but I know this is the strongest part of my writing.

If I’m totally honest about it, I’ve relied on my dialogue too much. Consistent praise for the dialogue in my plays encouraged me to continue developing my style in that one area because I thought of it as my winning ticket.

“People love my dialogue so I need to focus on developing that even further, it’s like my trademark.”

But feedback which draws your attention to your strengths and ignores your weaknesses is useless, and can even be harmful.

Of course, I have to take some of the blame for this. I should have realised the fact everyone praised my dialogue meant that they didn’t like other aspects of my writing as much. I should have been developing and honing my other skills to be as strong as my dialogue writing.

Great dialogue alone will never make a great play.

A great play also needs unique characters, a captivating premise and a strong structure, among other things.

In writing, as in life, nobody naturally excels at everything. Football (or soccer, if you like) commentators frequently describe players as having “no left foot.” What they mean is that a player can only shoot or pass the ball with their right foot. It’s one of the hallmarks of a great player to be able to use both feet; it makes it possible to play on either side of the pitch, and to shoot from either side of goal without having to switch to their stronger foot.

Some players know this and consciously train their weaker foot every day. Others don’t bother, and subsequently never reach their full potential. They’re still good players, they have amazing talents in other areas and are able to play professionally but they’re neglecting a basic skill which could elevate their game considerably.

Find your weaknesses as a writer and work at developing them.

There are some skills vital to writing great plays which take an enormous amount of time and work to develop.

Using myself as an example again, I now realise story structure is likely my biggest weakness. I know I’m not alone here.

Although we as playwrights love to look down on Hollywood writers with their script templates and prescriptive terms like “The Inciting Incident” and “The Third Plot Point” there are reasons why these things exist. And all of your favourite films and plays have them.

There are a plethora of books, articles and PhD theses out there focusing on the structure of stories. A multitude of theories exist to explain why some stories keep us captivated and others bore us to tears.

Structure is real. And it’s out there.

Unfortunately there’s a misconception and, frankly, a bit of snobbery in theatre towards “formulaic” writing. We want our stories to be unique and organic, which is absolutely fair enough, but because of this there is a tendency to underplay the importance of structure. Theatrical types be like “Hollywood writers may need all these templates and guidelines because they’re churning out a commercial product but we in the theatre write from the heart and refuse to be influenced by these rigid conventions.”

Thus, as a young, aspiring writer in theatre I was never advised to study story structure. I received a ton of great tips about writing dialogue, raising the stakes, creating memorable characters and even cutting down a lengthy script, but nobody ever told me how to use story structure to craft a protagonist’s development through a play or to build towards a meaningful climax.

Thinking about it now, it’s absolutely ridiculous not to study structure when you want to develop strong stories. Can you imagine an architect designing a building without a good understanding of maths and physics? Understanding the rules allows architects to design unique buildings which challenge those rules in incredible ways. Not understanding the rules would result in buildings which frequently fell down, if they were able to even stand in the first place.

A lack of structural understanding is the reason why I’ve always struggled to develop my ideas and short plays into full-length pieces of theatre. I’m now working hard to improve my understanding by studying the theory and examining how it applies to the plays and films I love.

I have no doubt in time this will improve my writing. Finding your weak points and working to develop them will undoubtedly improve yours.

Coming back to your question I’d like to end by saying, somewhat ironically, don’t take the praise to heart.

When someone tells you they like something about your writing by all means have a moment of righteous self-congratulation. Give yourself a hearty pat on the back and thank the person concerned as enthusiastically as you feel is appropriate given the setting and level of familiarity.

Then go home and ask yourself what you could improve. Writers are actually very lucky in one respect – there are barely any physical limitations in our trade. If you’re a basketball player who’s too short to dunk you’ll never be able to do it. It’s a physical fact of life.

As a writer pretty much every limitation you encounter will be a gap in your knowledge and/or skill. Don’t know how to spell ‘onomatopoeia’? Look it up. Don’t know how to structure a scene? Read about it and practice. Don’t know what to name your character? Sleep on it.

Obviously I’m being flippant for argument’s sake; some limitations take a great deal of work to overcome. But no problem you’ll encounter in writing a play is insurmountable.

Never stop striving to better yourself as a writer. Keep working, keep learning, keep progressing. There are thousands of people out there who write well. To rise above them you need to be able to write exceptionally.

To write exceptionally you can’t accept your limitations, you need to overcome them.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

4 thoughts on “Pursued By A Bear: “Should I accept I won’t break through as a playwright?””

  1. Courses in creative writing helped me for the presentation of the script. After three courses(film, radio, stage) I got it. They are important for the technicality. The rest is up to our imagination. I must say, after the first course, I was annoyed with the praise. I found it very American like; be niiiiice. The thing is I am sitting between two cultures, even if they are both European. France and England have always been the opposite extremes. In France, all they see is your weaknesses, your shortcomings. In England, people always tell you what is good!
    So I have always felt suspicious when people tell me how good my work is, I know they keep quiet about the shortcomings. I always wonder what is the percentage of politeness.

    Some people (myself sometimes) criticize a character by saying he/she is patronizing or two faced. Of course they are, these characters are meant to be! They are mixed up between the nature of the character (he is what he is) and what should be changed because it sounds wrong for the play.
    I hope I made myself clear as English is not my mother tongue but my husband’s.

  2. Thank you, Adam. Excellent advice on persevering, and editing your work as hard and impersonally as you can (with advice from an honest friend or two) – and making the extra effort to overcome your weaknesses and limitations as a playwright.

    Your comments on the absolute necessity of strong structure are particularly helpful, I think – a good strong, economical story structure helps make your play more appealing to many more people. And if we want theatre to live and grow, our work needs to attract as many audiences as possible.

    But even with good structure, interesting characters who are wrestling with powerful moral dilemmas, and with brilliant dialogue, etc etc, there is still the de-moralising element of being just one among many playwrights competing for a limited number of places in the market.

    But because the market is small, (specially in a low population country like Australia), and because companies naturally like to develop relationships with writers – indeed that is what the playwright is seeking, a relationship with a company of performers – and because companies naturally tend to want to work again with writers whose work they already know and feel comfortable with, it really is extremely difficult to break into the established performance outlets.

    This is where producing your own work yourself, with a group of equally overlooked actors, becomes more and more appealing. And of course you look for competitions that welcome “emerging writers”, and keep your fingers crossed that one day you will be the lucky one.

    I think that success as a writer, or other kind of artist, is often a case of mind over matter – of obstinately believing that your work is worthwhile – entertaining and moving – or will be when you have collaborators to help you get it up on the stage – despite all the evidence to the contrary. A matter of going on simply because if you give up now, you’ll never know if success was just around the next of the neverending corners.
    Cheers,
    Virginia J Rose

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